It was such a gift to have an entire odyssey of a journey planned and booked for me in New Zealand – all I had to do was get my stuff together and turn up (when does that ever happen in adult life? I’m such a jammy beggar!) and my fabulous relatives did the rest. But it is quite a challenge as a single person, when you’ve been used to being your own boss in pretty much every sense of the word for a looong time, to welcome that gift for a whole month.
So when I arrived in the middle of Hanoi, possibly the noisiest and most unfamiliar place I’ve ever stayed in my life so far, to the hotel I’d booked to be on my own, with only myself to answer to for a couple of days, I noticed that, ironically, I quietly came home to myself.
I remembered to take my tablets on time, and slotted back into something more like my usual rhythms of prayer, and of reflective writing, although there was still an element of foreignness inevitably, with my being in a very different place.
John O’Donohue is one of my favourite poets. A friend gave me a copy of his blessing for travellers before I left England. Here’s a little quote from it that resonates with my travels and my thoughts about home;
“Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in,
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry…”
I love the way this attributes the characteristics of the traveller’s experience to the place they’re travelling in. The place startles a little at your entry. (I, as the traveller, am startled a little at my arrival in new places, but the place is also startled at me.) Because that’s how encounters work, right? I react, you react, which determines how I react, you react… etc. And if empathy is present, the one person will inevitably reflect back the emotions and reactions of the other. That’s what makes being in a caring profession tricky – sometimes you can exercise empathy so frequently that you cease to be able to distinguish between your emotions and reactions and those of the person you’re empathising with.
This is like the time I told my friend and colleague Fiona about a mucocele (a small, temporary and harmless bump) I had found on my lip, and she sat there exploring her own lip with the tip of her tongue, trying to find one there too, in auto-empathy mode, then said, “What am I doing???!”
What’s interesting is the way O’Donohue points out how entire places, communities, households, hotels, market sellers, landscapes even, respond and react to the presence of the traveller. There’s something very beautiful about that observation. When I started my journey, I thought that it would be about what I would experience (typical individualistic Westerner that I am). Actually it’s also about how I am experienced by others, including by the landscape that I travel in. What a revelation!
Last night we had dinner together at the homestay. Around the table were Mai (the Mum, who doesn’t speak much English), Thanh and Thao (sisters both in their twenties), Nghia (a cousin who works here, also in his twenties), Zach (Canadian traveller who drifted in yesterday) and myself. In our conversation there were a series of startles (including the fact that some people eat cat and dog here still, and Thao has to put the three pet cats in a safe house cage overnight to make sure they don’t get stolen for this purpose) and resonances (which were many, including an openness to learning more – language, about each other’s cultures, about how to use chopsticks (on my part – everyone else was very proficient!)).
I will quote more from this beautiful O’Donohue poem, but if you’d like the full poem, Google “John O’Donohue For the traveller”, or find it in his book of blessings.